John Patrick Shanley first visited his father’s birthplace in Ireland in 1993, and Outside Mullingar, which opened last year in New York, is a clear response to what he found there. We know this Ireland he depicts — rural, muddy and barren; we know of its isolated farms and the men forced to wait until middle age and beyond to inherit — unmarried, introverted, bitterly virginal. To this vision, Shanley adds an outsider’s clarity and skepticism, clouded by a strong dash of American sentimentalism. And near the end, he throws in a revelation so cockeyed and eccentric that it snaps credulity and detracts from the depth and authenticity of what’s come before.
The glory of the play lies in the language. Shanley — who won multiple writing awards, including an Oscar for the screenplay of the charming romance Moonstruck and a Pulitzer for Doubt: A Parable, which explores the case of a rigid, uncompromising nun and a beloved priest accused of sexual impropriety — has a great ear for speech, and the dialogue is often reminiscent of the great Irish dramatist John Millington Synge. It has the same flow and provides the same bounty of pure aural pleasure, along with wonderful moments of humor and tidbits of poetic insight. So even after the cockeyed revelation (and although it took a certain act of will), I remained enchanted by this play, and hoping everything would work out for a central couple twisted by lifetimes of disappointment and kept apart by anger and fear.